First impressions of the official Steam app beta

Valve have finally answered users' demands for Steam on the go, currently in limited beta. How does it shape up?

As some of you may know Valve’s new official Steam mobile app hit the iPhone app store and Android marketplace a few days ago. As soon as I heard the news I immediately downloaded it and tried to log in only to be told it was in closed beta, though by downloading it I had expressing an interest to join and could end up being accepted. “Fat chance of that happening” I muttered to myself, still bitter about not being accepted for the Diablo III beta action last year. “I never have any luck with this sort of thing. Except for that time I got into the Starcraft II beta and only played three online matches.”

As sheer blind luck would have it, not only have I got in but I can also gift one other lucky person with access to the beta. I haven’t done that yet but there’s still time so drop me a message via the contact page/comments telling me why you deserve it, and if I’m feeling generous it’s yours. Meanwhile I find myself in the unique position of being able to tell you people all about it, specifically how it compares to all those third-party unofficial Steam apps we’ve had to put up before now. So how does Valve’s first foray into the mobile market fare?

Yeah, Terraria is my anti-drug. What of it?

I have previously been using Supportware for Steam on my iPhone 3G, which as unofficial apps go is the least mediocre of a pretty sorry bunch. It’s pretty much only good for seeing which of my friends are currently online and while it also told me what games had taken most of my free time that week, it does it nowhere near as comprehensively (or damningly) as Steam itself does. To Supportware’s credit it does provide a nice and convenient summary of the Steam news feed, but aside from that it gives me hardly any of what I want from a Steam app. No way to browse the Steam store or communicate with my friends. Valve’s official Steam app immediately brings both to the table.

Of the many features Valve’s Steam app delivers the one that most excited me was Steam chat. I can pick up my phone right this second, select a random person on my friends list who happens to be online, and call them a paedo. I wouldn’t do that of course because I don’t make a habit of befriending child molesters online, but it’s nice to know I have the option to verbally berate them wherever I may be. Like on a bus for example, or while walking to the shops. That’s assuming I don’t accidentally press the button labelled “Remove Friend,” which happens to be right next to the Chat button on their profile page. A mere slip of the finger away. It’s a surprising moment of carelessness from a developer that’s usually so mindful the little details.

Now you can buy a game about trains whilst on one.

The other big feature we’ve all wanted from a Steam app is the ability to empty our wallets into Valve’s pockets from somewhere other than at our desks. In the app’s current form you can buy a game and it’ll be instantly added to your library, whether you’re round a friend’s house or atop Mount Kilimanjaro with a satellite internet connection. Alas the app doesn’t automatically download the games for you, meaning you still have to do the monkey work of clicking a button when you get home. Not all store pages are phone-optimised for the app right now either and some are outright broken, while things like trailer pages are flat-out useless if you’re viewing them on an iPhone due to Apple’s pathological aversion to Flash. I also noticed a profound lack of any sorting options and the search box is missing the ever-handy “clear text field” button. Again, the little things Valve are generally known for paying careful attention to.

For all the basic features the official Steam app brings it curiously omits a fair few we’ve come to take for granted. Viewing a friend’s profile is currently a somewhat anaemic experience little better than what you’d get with one of the third-party unofficial apps. You can’t leave comments for one thing, nor can you have a ganders at their games library. Selecting one of their recently played games just takes you to that game’s store page, brutally highlighting the app’s most grievous omission that is the complete and utter lack of any viewable achievements. The friend activity page will tell you Rod, Jane or Freddie has earned a specific achievement in Super Meat Boy or MW3 but that’s as much info as it’ll give you.

Steam: Geocities edition.

The sparseness of profile information extends to your own with the added hassle that you can’t even check your own games library to remind yourself what you own. Pages for screenshots and videos are also barely functional right now and effectively still under construction, as indicated by an amusing animated .gif of a flashing traffic barrier like the ones that littered websites during the 1990s.  Other features not yet implemented include the forums – some may consider that a blessing, Steam trading and group chat.

Despite its problems and missing features the official Steam app is a promising start from a respected developer taking its first step into unfamiliar territory. Beta is beta after all. Having the Steam store in your pocket is in itself an amazing thing and the simple inclusion of working chat already elevates it far above its third-party competitors. As it stands the official Steam app is a well-crafted proof of concept with a couple of rough edges and splinters that need smoothing out, and it has the potential to be enormous. For PC gamers who use Steam a lot it could become one of the first apps you check when you wake up in the morning, alongside Twitter, Facebook and your news app of choice. Even in its beta state it’s far superior to the third-party Steam apps out there simply by virtue of Steam chat and Steam store integration, and Valve are cataloguing a lot of feedback from the official Steam mobile app forum.

A new build of the beta version with bug fixes and more features is scheduled for release sometime this week (barring Valve time). Valve’s Mike Durand has stated they plan to steadily increase the number of beta users throughout this week, so if you want in you’ve got nothing to lose by downloading it (it’s free) and trying to log in to express your interest. You’ve got to be in it to win it, as they say.

Matt McDermott

About Matt McDermott

Matt is the irresponsible degenerate behind bitscreed.com.